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2024 Montana Primary elections
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

2024 Election breakdown: Montana governor's race

Montana Govenor's office.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: Shaylee, who do Montanans have to choose from for governor?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: The presumed frontrunners in the race are Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Gianforte, a former tech entrepreneur from Bozeman, and Democrat Ryan Busse, a political newcomer and former firearms industry executive from Kalispell.

We’ve also got Libertarian Kaiser Lieb, who runs a comedy production company, Republican Rep. Tanner Smith, a legislator and construction business owner from Lakeside, and Democrat Jim Hunt, an attorney in Helena.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: Let’s start with the incumbent. So Gov. Gianforte has served one term in office, he’s running for a second. What’s his pitch for why Montanans should re-elect him?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Gianforte has kept his campaign message pretty simple– he says he wants to continue the work he’s started. In the past four years, Gianforte has prioritized economic policy, like cutting taxes and regulations, especially for businesses, increasing the state’s rainy day and fire suppression funds, paying off the state’s debts and investing in career and technical training.

GREG GIANFORTE: “But our work is not done. There are more that we can do to help Montanans prosper and protect our way of life. We have an agenda for this next session – number one on that is to help Montanans combat the affordability crisis that Biden has created.”

SHAYLEE RAGAR: While it’s not a part of his typical elevator pitch, we’ve also seen Gianforte take strong stances on social policy. He supports restricting access to abortion, legislation targeting transgender people and boosting private schools and charter schools in Montana.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: Can you talk more about what Gianforte means by “affordability crisis” and what your reporting shows about how it’s linked to federal or state policy?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Inflation reached a 40-year high in the middle of 2022, and while it’s decreased since then, people are still seeing higher prices at the grocery store, at the gas pump, and for housing. The governor blames the federal government, saying that printing more money and passing massive spending packages during and after the pandemic caused the rise in prices.

I will note – the state saw a windfall of cash from those federal packages, which largely contributed to a nearly $3 billion budget surplus last legislative session. That money was used for income and property tax rebates, and investments in infrastructure and mental health care that Gianforte has touted as successes under his leadership.

There are also more factors contributing to the housing crisis than federal inflation. Montana has been the second fastest growing state, according to U.S. Census data, and the state labor department’s annual reportpointed to that demand for housing outpacing supply as a driver of rising costs.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: Did Gianforte talk about how he wants to address housing affordability in Montana?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Yes, Gianforte created an affordable housing task force in June of 2022 that forwarded policy ideas to state lawmakers ahead of last session. Gianforte was particularly proud to sign bills into law that changed the regulatory and zoning environment for building new houses, aiming to make construction easier.

He renewed that task force to continue its work through 2025.

He’s also turning his focus to property taxes.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: Ah yes, a big issue on Montana homeowners minds and something we’ve been covering. What’s Gianforte’s plan for rising property taxes?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Right, lots of Montanans saw a 20% hike on their tax bills for the year. As we’ve reported, there’s been a lot of finger pointing going on over who’s to blame.

Gianforte says he would have liked to see a long-term property tax solution come out of last session, but they settled for one-time property tax rebates instead. This was a huge criticism of Gianforte from Democrats – they say they proposed long-term property tax changes that would have helped, but Republicans blocked them.

Gianforte says he’d like to see a bill next session that lowers property taxes for permanent residents while people who primarily live out of state with a home in Montana pay more. Second, Gianforte says the state needs to limit county government spending.

GREG GIANFORTE: “Recognizing that property taxes are driven by local expenses and voter approved mill levies, we need to look at why expenses are going up and what we can do to mitigate that.”

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: How does Gianforte propose limiting what counties can do with their taxes?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Well, Gianforte created a second task force to look specifically at property taxes, and he says he looks forward to considering what they come up with.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: I want to ask about another issue that is sure to dominate debate next legislative session and that’s Medicaid expansion, that’s the broad subsidized health coverage that can be offered to adults and families. And state lawmakers will be voting on whether to continue the program or not.

Where does Gianforte stand on that issue?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Right, Medicaid expansion will sunset in 2025 if the Legislature does not reauthorize it. Gianforte says he supports reauthorizing Medicaid expansion, with the caveat that it must include work requirements for adults who aren’t disabled or caretakers.

GREG GIANFORTE: “We need it in place. But I’m also concerned about the potential dependency it creates for able-bodied adults and adults who have dependent children.” 

SHAYLEE RAGAR: In 2019, the Montana Legislature reauthorized Medicaid expansion with work requirements for recipients, but the Biden Administration rejected those requirements.

However, if there’s a new Republican president in office in 2025, it could be a different story.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: Gotcha, so Gianforte, with a caveat, supports Medicaid expansion – but not all Republicans do. In fact, more than 70 GOP lawmakers voted against it in 2019. What does that tell us?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Gianforte is more moderate than some of the state’s more hardline Republicans. And that’s actually why Rep. Tanner Smith is challenging him. Smith says he made that decision last legislative session.

TANNER SMITH: “I was there about two weeks and I said, I’ve got to be governor because I saw first hand what the lobbyists were doing, that Gov. Gianforte working with the solutions caucus which are the softer Republicans in the middle, you know that they were having some real bad policies coming out of Helena.”

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Smith says he would veto Medicaid expansion if it got to his desk as governor.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: What do we know about Smith?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Smith was first elected to the statehouse in 2022. Before that, he served on his local school board in the Flathead. He also owns and operates an excavation business in Lakeside.

Smith says Gianforte is not a conservative. His main campaign platforms revolve around boosting natural resource extraction, regulating the recreational marijuana industry more tightly and addressing illegal immigration in the state.

TANNER SMITH: “We can use our national guard dressed in plain clothes to stop and frisk these folks.”

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: How does Smith’s campaign finance efforts compare?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Smith has raised just a fraction of the amount of money Gianforte has for his campaign. And Gianforte has held state public office now since 2017, giving him quite an advantage in name recognition.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: Ok, let’s turn to Democrat Ryan Busse. What do we know about him?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Busse is a political newcomer, he hasn’t held public office before. But he’s not new to the public eye. Busse used to be a top firearms industry executive, before he says he became disillusioned with what he calls radicalization in the industry. He wrote a book criticizing that, called Gunfight, and that gained national attention.

In the months leading up to his campaign announcement, Busse was also a vocal critic of Gianforte and his policies.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: So why did Busse decide to run?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Busse says he was dismayed but the way he saw Montana changing. He originally grew up on a farm in Kansas, but moved to Montana about 30 years ago and raised his sons here.

RYAN BUSSE: “Once you stepped into Montana, everybody was equal. And the ways in which our state is being turned into this playground for billionaires now have me really worried, and that beautiful small ‘d’ democracy in Montana is in peril and I think I’m called to stand up and address that.”

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Busse’s campaign slogan is “get your Montana back,” and he’s largely focused on pointing out ways he thinks Gianforte has influenced negative change here.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: What are some of his chief criticisms of Gianforte?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: It’s a fairly long list, I’ll do my best to summarize the main points.

Busse says Gianforte is out-of-touch with everyday Montanans, being that he’s a multi-millionaire. The Democrat has criticized Gianforte’s tax cuts that have disproportionately benefited the wealthy, and businesses over low- to middle-income Montanans.

He says housing policy should do more to help renters, and that the state should do more to help people who are already here. Gianforte has made a big push to invite new businesses and residents to Montana, saying it’s important to create and fill jobs.

Busse has also been critical of Gianforte’s social policy stances, like abortion. Busse says the government should not interfere or regulate intimate medical decisions, like terminating a pregnancy.

RYAN BUSSE: “The very nature of the place that we love so much, this non-judgmental, live and let live state where we help people instead of hate people – like that's all being taken from us. And I think it is being taken. I don't think it's like gravity. I don't think it's something that just is happening. I think it's something that's being done by a small cadre of radicalized Republicans and by this governor.”

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Busse also criticizes Gianforte’s stance on boosting private and charter schools, saying that takes money away from public schools. He also is a big proponent of policies to address climate change.

You may know the Busse name because his two sons were part of a group of youth who sued the state, arguing the government has failed to address climate change, and they won.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: So he’s unhappy with Gianforte. What does he plan to bring to the table?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Yeah I would say the majority of Busse’s campaign has been about trying to contrast himself with Gianforte by pointing out what he thinks the governor has done wrong.

Essentially, he says he wouldn’t have made any of those changes that Gianforte is proud of. He says he agrees the state needs to address its tax structure to ease the burden on property owners, saying Gianforte is to blame for not adjusting property tax rates last legislative session.

In terms of specifics, he says he’s still figuring that out, but promises to bring experts to the table.

RYAN BUSSE: “I think it's a complex answer, but working people and homeowners cannot continue to bear an ever increasing portion of the taxes – and industry continue to bear an ever lessening portion of our taxes. That is not fair.”

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Busse also supports reauthorizing Medicaid expansion, and he and Gianforte both say they want to increase public teacher pay.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: Any other priorities from Busse you think are important to highlight?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: I’ll just note that Busse’s website says he wants to work with sovereign tribal nations as partners

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: So these candidates have also announced running mates – their picks for lieutenant governor. Who are they?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Right. Gianforte is again running with current Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras. Juras is an attorney from Conrad and former law professor. She headed up the Gianforte Administration’s efforts to reduce what they call burdensome regulations.

Busse is running with Raph Graybill, a attorney originally from Great Falls, who now practices in Helena. Graybill was former Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief legal counsel and ran unsuccessfully for Attorney General in 2020. Most recently, Graybill was in the news for representing Planned Parenthood of Montana trying to protect abortion access.

Smith’s running mate is Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci who’s known as a far-right Republican serving on the state’s public utility oversight board. He represents much of eastern Montana. Pinocci was arrested twice last fall after failing to appear in court for a disorderly conduct misdemeanor charge and for felony witness tampering charges.

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: What else do we need to know about this race?

SHAYLEE RAGAR: The Libertarian candidate Kaiser Lieb does not have an opponent in his party’s primary, so he’s guaranteed to advance to the general election. Democrat Jim Hunt has not responded to MTPR efforts to get in touch with him. He’s not campaigned much, nor has raised much money for the race.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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